Sunday, August 29, 2010

5 Years After Hurricane Katrina

Today my heart goes out to all of those affected by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. I still don't know if I have the words to express how I felt at the time. Horrified still doesn't even seem to come close.

I was a graduate student at the time, working the day shift at the Beacon Pub. This meant I was usually alone in the bar with the TV for a good few hours when I started work and I spent that time glued to CNN. When I came home at night, my roommate and I watched more CNN and said the word "Fuck" a lot. As in:

"Fuck, I can't believe this is happening."

"Holy Fuck."

"Where the fuck is the government?"

"Why can't we fucking help these people? Our people. This is an American city that looks like a fucking war zone. What the fuck?"

And then we went off to make yet another donation to the Red Cross, giving all we could afford, wishing we could do more.

I had family in New Orleans. An elderly great aunt and uncle who escaped to Houston. That is where they remain to this day, physically, emotionally, and financially unable to return to the city they called home for many many many years.

I have a special bond to New Orleans that I can't explain. It feels like an old friend that I have known all of my life. There are only two cities in the world I feel this way about, the other being Seattle. I visited New Orleans for the first time when I was eighteen with my best friend from college, Lindsay. Our time there was twisted and intoxicated and strange (the crappy hotel in IWBYJR where Emily and Louisa both stay in New Orleans is based off my first trip to New Orleans. Emily's sleeping pill induced hallucinations.... yeah guilty as charged). But we loved it. We talked about moving there for many years. I went back for Halloween the next year with my boyfriend at the time and saw even more of the sights and stayed in a beautiful hotel in the French Quarter and oh, that city, that beautiful city. It is just in my blood. And watching what happened there was like watching a person you loved get nearly bludgeoned to death.... except you are miles and miles away and completely helpless to stop it.

Helpless was how I felt most of the time. Seeing what nature could do and humans were powerless to stop. Except we did have the power to do something. Our government fucked up. It failed a lot of people. So for days as I watched the news coverage terrible sorrow and helplessness gave way to rage.

One day (two or three days after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana? It's all a blur), one of my old curmudgeonly patrons had one of his total bastard moments and had the gall to say to me, "Why are you watching this?" in reference to the CNN coverage. "It's not like you care. People your age don't care?"

Oh, how I ripped into him. "People my age don't care? Are you kidding me? How much have you donated to the Red Cross? My friends and I are donating more and more each day. I have friends planning trips down there to clean-up and rebuild. We care. And from what it looks like we care a hell of a lot more than the old men running the government."

That shut him up. He actually apologized, something very rare for this guy.

That moment really stuck with me though and as a result, one of the main characters in my work in progress (AKA the bartender book) is a girl who was just about to turn fourteen and whose mother is moving her to a new town yet again at the same time the Hurricane Katrina hits. As a result she really identifies with these people from Louisiana and Mississippi who are made refugees. Hurricane Katrina actually changes and informs her whole view of life. It's actually a large part of what inspired the book and it's theme of finding and making your own true home. That's because Hurricane Katrina really shook up my own world view as well.

Zoe, my character, is a little bit more eloquent about it than I am (well mostly, this is still a work in progress and rough around the edges), so here is a scene relating to Hurricane Katrina and how it affected Zoe, the character who is telling it.


I’d always hated the way the mainstream media turned events that were barely newsworthy into signs of Armageddon. But the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina had completely sucked me in.

I watched people being rescued by boat from the rooftops of their homes in New Orleans with my hand over my mouth in disbelief. Initially, I was too shocked to cry, but then my eyes began to sting and my throat closed. The coverage changed to broken storefront windows and men in military uniforms walking the streets of an American city like it was a war zone. When the newscaster reported that the police and National Guardsmen were turning their attention to stopping looters instead of saving lives, I wanted to be indignant at the useless government for failing its people. I would be in days to come, but right then, before I could even realize my anger, I was paralyzed by fear. There was so much water. Further breaches in the levies seemed imminent. More storms might be on their way. How would this get fixed? How would anything be the same again? No, this can’t be real…

As the same bad news played on a loop, my emotions continually cycled through disbelief, sorrow, anger, and fear. Then, just before midnight the camera focused in on a little old lady. The caption below her read: “Grace LeCroix, Fled New Orleans For Houston With Husband.”

Grace wore a simple blue dress that buttoned up the front, reminding me of an old-fashioned nurse’s uniform. It hung shapelessly off her skinny frame. Her hair looked thin near her scalp, but then it spun into cotton-thick white curls that ended just above her shoulders. Her pale gray eyes were rimmed in red and the wrinkles around them trapped her tears. Purplish-blue veins were visible through the skin of her hands, which she clasped in front of her chest like she was praying.

She stood flanked by her husband and son and told the reporter, “My husband convinced me to leave right before Katrina hit. We drove to Houston to be with our son, but I wish we hadn’t. Our neighborhood is completely flooded. I’m sure our house is a total loss. We don’t have the money to go back nor the physical ability. I’m eighty-nine years old and I got cancer. I wish I stayed in my home and drowned. I just wanted to die in New Orleans. I was born there and I wanted to die there.”

Grace squeezed her eyes shut and her lips trembled. But she didn’t break down. Instead she balled her hands into fists and pressed her lips into a straight line to steady them. When she reopened her eyes, they glistened with anger instead of tears. “I wish the goddamn hurricane had killed me. I loved New Orleans. My family has lived in Louisiana since the 1800s. They lived and died there and I wanted to die there, too. New Orleans is my home,” she said staunchly.

Then she swallowed hard. The sorrow had returned. You could see it in her eyes; she was about to break, just like the levees. Her lip quivered again and her voice dropped to a whisper. “And if home is where the heart is, my heart drowned on Monday.”

Grace crumpled against her husband’s chest. He patted her shoulder and echoed, “New Orleans is our home. I wish we coulda stayed. You shouldn’t have to abandon your home like that.”
Grace and her husband’s words reduced me to a snot-soaked mess. I spent ten solid minutes bawling over them and everyone else affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Then my tears became selfish. I hated myself for it because I could clearly see the people who were much worse off than me right there on CNN. They sat in the broiling heat on the roofs of their homes waiting for rescuers that may never come. They were being evacuated into sports arenas, living like animals on a factory farm. They wept over missing loved ones, who were probably dead. They were refugees whose lives would never be the same.

And I would fundraise for them and write impassioned blog entries and angry letters to the irresponsible government on their behalf. I would get back to fighting against all the injustice I saw in the world as soon as I could.

But in that moment I had to cry for myself because I was alone in a cheap motel room in Montana.

I turned off the TV and curled up on the foot of the bed, hugging a pillow to my chest, which felt completely hollow. If home is where the heart is, where was my heart? Had I left it in one of the many houses or apartments I’d occupied over the years? Forgotten to pack it like the favorite toy that had gotten left on the back porch in Santa Cruz or the favorite t-shirt that Mom hadn’t grabbed off the clothesline at the commune in Oregon? Or was it broken into million little pieces like the glass photo frame containing a picture of me, Mom, and Pete that I’d smashed when Mom told me we were moving to Seattle?

So that is Hurricane Katrina in my fiction and my memories of that terrible time. We cannot forget what happened five years ago. Something like this could very easily happen again and we need to be there to help each other. If we don't.... well, you've read/watched post-apocalyptic stories where selfishness is so often our downfall.

The story that I'm writing takes place now, five years after Hurricane Katrina, so if you see any interesting news stories, please share them with me here along with your memories of the Hurricane. I have not been to New Orleans since the Hurricane, but I am hoping that will change possibly even this fall.

I know much of this blog entry has a sad feel to it, so I leave you with this song from the Loved Ones that reminds me of the resilience of the human spirit when we are there to help each other.


Indigo said...

Hurricane Katrina was horrifying on so many levels. Although I didn't have anyone I knew living in New Orleans at the time, I still felt fear for these people.

Laying next to me on the couch is my Katrina survivor. Pickles came to me a year after Katrina. She was a mere puppy, at the time they rescued her. In that year she had been traded from one shelter to another as rescue workers tried to place all the animals lost and abandoned in the hurricane.

Finally, she ended up getting placed with the agency that trained her to be my working dog for the deaf. Every time it thunders or rains hard, I know what she went through. The fear that shines from her eyes - tells her story.

Amazingly, she came through it all to be the most loving, mischievious soul. Five years later, I still remember Katrina. I'm pretty sure my dog does too. Although I know this isn't a human issue story, it's one more aspect of the horror that unfolded five years ago. This one had a happy ending. (Hugs)Indigo

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Indigo, I can't tell you how much I love your story about your sweet puppy Pickles. That is a happy ending. I am glad you two found each other!